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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is at a record-high in per-child spending, but there are still plenty of unmet needs.
"Because of all the tax cutting that we've been doing — cutting on average $100 million per year for the last 35 years — it adds up to $3.5 billion every year that we don't have to be investing in children," said Matthew Weinstein, state priorities partnership director at Voices for Utah Children.
Voices for Utah Children on Thursday released a report saying the state's annual tax cuts have eaten into investments for the future of Utah children. More than $5 billion in unmet needs was identified by the child advocacy group.
Despite huge bumps in school funding and federal stimulus packages related to the ongoing pandemic, Weinstein said, education, specifically, "is at a record low for how much of our income we're putting into educating our children." He said on Twitter that Utah is "drowning in unmet needs in Utah education infrastructure, health, child care, housing, homelessness, mental health, drug treatment, air quality, rural development and the list goes on."
Is Utah really #SwimminginMoney? Or might it be more accurate to say we're #DrowninginUnmetNeeds in #UtEd, infrastructure, health, childcare, housing, homelessness, mental health, drug treatment, air quality, rural development, & the list goes on.#utpolhttps://t.co/bWDarDpPTy— Matthew Weinstein (@Matt_Wein) October 25, 2021
"It makes a difference on an everyday basis, but also has an impact on the future of our society," Weinstein said, adding that the burden is more greatly felt by a growing number of minority children in Utah. "We need to make those investments now and make sure those kids have what they need to be successful. Closing those gaps is a key element of Utah's future success and prosperity."
The good news, he said, is that the state is trending upward in spending on child programs and education.
"As we invest in children and get them school-ready, they have higher educational attainments, they'll have increased workforce productivity, enhanced economic growth and prosperity, reduced poverty, dependency, substance abuse, crime, incarceration, all the things that we want to see for everyone in our state to improve their standard of living," said Taylor Thorne, economic policy analyst with Voices for Utah Children.
"It's so important to see how we're investing in our children," she said. And while there are major gaps in some areas, Thorne said, "We're investing now more than ever before ... which is a good thing."
Utah recently surpassed Idaho, becoming the 49th of 50 states in per pupil spending, overspending the neighboring state by $29 per student. There may also be fewer kids in Utah schools in the future, as Voices for Utah Children noted a change in Utah's demographics — there are a greater number of kids enrolling in K-12 schools, but fewer in the zero to 5-year-old age group. Utah's birth rate has fallen from 38% in 2008, to 32% in 2020, according to the report.
The report shows a marked decrease in the number of children in restrictive settings or detention facilities, as well as less demand for child welfare programs (though, this is not unlikely in economic expansion periods). Nutrition services and food stability in the state is up 59%, with an estimated one in 12 kids facing hunger — better than it has been in years.
"We have the food and we have the ability to make sure that no child goes hungry in Utah," said Thorne.
Early childhood education spending in Utah also increased 90% since 2008, the peak in Utah's spending for children, to 2020, which is the latest data available. That funding is mostly from federal sources and is mostly spent on children with special needs, according to the report.
Health care funding for children is another bright spot in the report, with Utah seeing a 103% increase of $141 million in the last 12 years, which also leverages around $488 million in matching federal funds that is coming to the state.
"We're covering more kids, which is great, but we're still last in the nation in terms of the percentage of kids that are covered," Thorne said.
Through its United Today, Stronger Tomorrow coalition, Voices for Utah Children is working to identify areas that the public believe could be better funded for children, including affordable housing and child care, which is currently an obstacle in getting people back to work, Weinstein said.
And while many of the shortages are manifest in societal deficits — decreasing numbers of high school grads or fewer Utah kids heading to college — Weinstein said kids do experience the shortfalls.
"It makes an impact in the classroom every day. We have the largest class sizes and least experienced teachers in the nation. There is very high turnover. And we have dollar figures on what it would take to reduce class sizes," he said, adding that it would cost Utah taxpayers $500 million to $600 million per year to increase salaries and reduce attrition.